Patriots’ Hunter Henry, Jonnu Smith rank among ESPN’s top 10 tight ends

The two Patriots tight ends are set to become the focal point of the team's passing attack in 2021.

Hunter Henry Patriots
Hunter Henry. Charlie Riedel/AP
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The New England Patriots already nabbed one of the two best free-agent tight ends when they announced an agreement with Jonnu Smith early on free agency’s first day.

Then, they went out and got the man many thought was the best free-agent tight end, Hunter Henry, as well.

That two-headed monster may have secured the Patriots two of the 10 best players at their position in the league, according to NFL executives.

Henry and Smith both made a new top-10 list of NFL tight ends published by ESPN on Thursday. Henry ranks No. 7 overall just behind Philadelphia’s Dallas Goedert, while Smith sits at No. 9, one spot behind Evan Engram of the New York Giants.


The rankings are based on a composite survey of anonymous executives, coaches and scouts who voted on their top 10 tight ends.

According to one executive, Henry’s game harkens to a “young, more dynamic version” of Pro-Bowl tight end Kyle Rudolph.

“Translation: Not fast, but finds ways to get open and produce,” writes ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler. “This earned Henry a ton of top-10 votes, though not necessarily many in the top 5. Henry won’t stretch the field vertically but can get you 10 yards just about whenever you need it, dropping only one pass on 90 targets last year. The Patriots would have to work hard to prevent Henry from getting his usual 55 to 60 catches for 600 yards.”

Another AFC executive was slightly less effusive in his praise, saying Henry is “not great all around, but will wow you in the passing game with great hands.”

Though the Patriots certainly hope Henry will block effectively, catching the football is his main purpose for New England.

Patriots tight ends only caught 18 passes last season after years of stellar offensive production based on a two-tight end system. Those struggles further exposed the team’s lack of depth and talent at receiver, compounding a frustrating year passing-wise.

Henry played like a true “U/move” tight end for the Los Angeles Chargers, lining up as a slot or wide receiver almost as often as he put his hand on the ground in-line last year according to Pro Football Focus. His route-running ability and solid hands turned heads quickly at Patriots spring camp as he developed a rapport with both Cam Newton and Mac Jones.


Smith, on the other hand, lined up most often as a traditional tight end with the Tennessee Titans. But don’t be fooled: he’s even more versatile than Henry, and the Patriots will almost certainly take advantage of that.

“You can use him a gazillion different ways,” an NFL coordinator said on Smith’s profile. “Blocking at all levels, jet sweeps, motion, and he’s improved as a receiver.”

The ascending tight end talent is also a bear to bring down in the open field and is a major red-zone threat, scoring eight touchdowns on his 41 catches. Those two numbers, as well as his 448 receiving yards, were career-highs for Smith.

When the Patriots aren’t running the football, expect the offense to run primarily through Henry and Smith, whose threats in the middle and intermediate areas of the field could open up plays for everyone else.

New England might not have the best stable of receivers in the league, but they might just have the NFL’s best tight end combo.


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